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In one of his most irreverent moments, in the wild little book The Anti-Christ, composed not long before he completely lost his mind, Nietzsche states that there is only one admirable figure in the entire New Testament, one character alone who deserves our respect: Pontius Pilate.

It’s an ingeniously unexpected remark. You can’t help laughing when you hear it, the choice sounds so absurd. Pilate? Some critics believe that Dante, in a subtle reference, places him outside the gates of Hell, among those cowards who committed to neither good nor evil, but instead played neutral and ended up “odious to God and to his enemies.” Whether or not the phrase “Who made the great refusal” actually targets Pilate rather than Pope Celestine V, as most people think, the description fits. Not even an anti-Christian such as George ­Bernard Shaw thinks much of him. Yes, Pilate rightly condemned Jesus, who “was guilty on every count of the indictment,” Shaw writes in the preface to On the Rocks (1932)—but he never should have had Jesus tortured and crucified. The punishment should have been quick and measured. The mob wanted blood, though, and the “soldiers, too, had to have their bit of sport,” Shaw grumbles. Pilate, a spineless chief, gratified them. We expect a more muscular leadership than Pilate’s when he calls for water, washes his hands, and cries out to the crowd, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matt. 27:24).

The French writer Anatole France gives us yet another diminished version of the man, imagining Pilate many years after Jesus’s death as a bitter retiree in Italy with whom an old friend visits and discusses past times in Judea. Pilate complains about petty conspiracies against him in Rome and the annoying wiles of Jewish leaders. He is overweight and weak, tormented by gout, but claims that his “memory is not in the least degree enfeebled.” At one point, the other man, a happier fellow, recalls an alluring Jewess, a dancer with “heavy red hair, her eyes swimming with voluptuousness”—“I followed her everywhere,” he admits—who disappeared one day, the rumor being that she “had attached herself to a young Galilean thaumaturgist.” The Galilean’s name was Jesus, he adds, a Nazarene who was executed not long afterward.

“Pontius, do you remember anything about the man?” he asks.

Pilate hesitates, thinks for a moment, and replies, “Jesus—of ­Nazareth? I cannot call him to mind.”

The story ends on that anti-­climax, which gives a whole different perspective on the trial of Jesus. I read “The Procurator of Judea” (1891) forty years ago and took France to be saying that what Christians hail as the central moment in human history was no such thing. The man in charge at the time forgot it right after it had passed!

Still, his forgetfulness didn’t make Pilate especially laudable, certainly not equal to Nietzsche’s acclaim. It didn’t require any heroism for him to forget an episode for which he had no appreciation. The sentencing of Jesus was just another official duty, and he another ordinary official.

Nietzsche must mean more than this. Here is what he writes in The Anti-Christ:

Must I add that, in the whole New Testament, there appears but a solitary figure worthy of honor? Pilate, the Roman viceroy. To regard a Jewish imbroglio seriously—that was quite beyond him. One more Jew or less—what did it matter? The noble scorn of a Roman, before whom the word “truth” was shamelessly mishandled, enriched the New Testament with the only saying that has any value—and that is at once its criticism and its destruction: “What is truth?”

There it is, the distinguishing feature, the three-word query, a strange pause in the ghastly progress of arrest, torture, and death. Look closely at the wording—not Nietzsche’s language, but St. John’s. It’s the key to Nietzsche’s praise. “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice,” Jesus states. “Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:37–38).

The generalization is crucial. ­Pilate doesn’t ask, “What is the truth?,” which demands a specific answer (“The Kingdom of God is at hand . . .”). Nor does he ask, “What is true here?,” which is another way of asking Jesus for the facts of his case (“I am the Son . . .”). No, Pilate asks a conceptual question, “What is truth?”—truth per se, truth as an idea, truth in general defined.

It’s a reflective move, a step away from circumstances. Is Jesus guilty or innocent? That’s not important (“One Jew more or less—what does it matter?”). Do the Jewish leaders have a valid claim? Who cares? (“To regard a Jewish imbroglio seriously—that was quite beyond him.”) This fractious rabble and its pestering leaders demand a decision, while the inscrutable holy man before him must be disposed of one way or another. But all of these characters melt away as Pilate enters the philosopher’s zone. That’s why Nietzsche extols him. Pilate does what the phenomenologists who followed Nietzsche called “bracketing”: drawing into the light ideas that structure experience and are implemented unconsciously by the man in the street. What is truth? Before we respond with the empirical details that make up what really is true, Pilate cautions, let’s ponder what exactly we mean by “truth.”

Except, of course, that’s not what Pilate really intends. He’s not an epistemologist—Nietzsche wouldn’t like him if he were. ­Pilate is an ironist. He philosophizes in the comic mode. He doesn’t ask the question in order to set any conclusions about the accused on firmer ground. He does so to discredit the truth that enables Jesus’s ­worshippers to “hear” him. “What is truth?” isn’t a question; it’s a dismissal. He doesn’t expect an answer; he wants to ­impart his disdain. To cast the dispute before him as a matter of “the truth” deserves nothing but “noble scorn.”

Pilate’s question does through language what his handwashing does through symbolic action. It divides Philosophical Man from the squabbling masses. Nietzsche’s Pilate, then, isn’t a weak administrator trying to finesse a tricky adjudication. He is a cosmopolitan showing his superiority to parochial bickering. His question reduces Christianity from the truth of the world to a partisan contention. He doesn’t attack Christianity; he transcends it.

We can recognize in Nietzsche’s Pilate the modern liberal, if we define liberalism as pluralistic tolerance and metaphysical indifference. His entrance into the theater of the Passion is a virtuous and vigorous interruption of the Christian narrowing of life in all its energy and variety into a single, universal mode of being. Pilate’s irony dissolves the historic reality before him into a show. While everyone else in the drama is committed to the outcome, Pilate stands apart, a disinterested observer, an anti-dogmatist wary of truth-seekers and religious types. This isn’t so unlike the outlook of Richard Rorty.

Irony, you see, is freedom. It is the play of words, the independence of mind. How better to show your liberal urbanity than with a touch of acerbic condescension? The earnest self can only speak the truth—how boringly innocent! He trades in literal meanings of words and linear expressions of motive—how sincere . . . and dull. Would you rather listen to Mitt Romney or to Oscar Wilde? Melville puts it well when he has Claggart gaze at the simple and good Billy Budd and think with derision, “To be nothing more than innocent.” The ironist can choose among multiple personae; the earnest guy can only be himself. Shakespeare was an ironist in this sense, emptying his authorship into diverse characters to the point where we can’t pin down who he really was (Keats called this trait “negative capability”).

There is a side of Socrates, too, that was pure irony. He lied when he said he knew nothing, but that only made him more interesting. He could take apart any belief with a few bare questions, and he knew enough not to erect another belief in its place. He pretended to take instruction from others but always ended up instructing them against their biases—never, however, toward a positive belief. He could argue both sides of a question, and above all taught people to mistrust their presuppositions, but couldn’t provide them a stable, ­reliable affirmation of anything. That’s because “irony in a strict sense can never set forth a thesis” (­Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates).

Jesus has no irony when in the praetorium with Pilate. All wit and metaphor and cleverness stop with his sacrifice, leaving only the one Way and the one Truth. Pluralism, relativism, perspectivism, pragmatism, subjectivism . . . all the ideas of truth that break it down and parcel it out are reversed by the laconic figure in agony at ­Pilate’s feet. As Richard John ­Neuhaus once put it, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything,” and that irritates ­Nietzsche to distraction. The Christian celebrates this moment as fulfillment; Nietzsche judges it as impoverishment. It’s ­nihilism—­nihilism by a totalitarian insistence on a single reality. Jesus lived a prophetic life and endured a sensational death, but once it was over, Nietzsche growls, these “bigots and ­liars began to claim exclusive rights in the concepts of ‘God,’ ‘the truth,’ ‘the light,’ ‘the spirit.’” Pilate, the one free and healthy spirit amid the zealots, opened things up once more. Christians should have listened to him, not to the priests, whom Nietzsche labels “professional deniers.” Jesus’s life and death were his truth, nobody else’s: “At bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”

We are in an age in which the Pilates outnumber the Peters, but I’m not sure ­Nietzsche would smile to see it. After all, it is Pilate’s singularity that distinguishes him. His relativism seems a lot less intrepid when it’s on the lips of every college sophomore. In today’s society, it is easier to ask “What is truth?” than to propose a truth and seek it valiantly. The irreverence of the twentieth century has turned ­Pilate’s putatively devastating sally into glib and unearned skepticism.

Nietzsche should have anticipated this. Or, at least he might have asked an obvious question of his own: If Pilate’s remark is so ruinous to the Christian story, why does it appear in the text? If the early Christians, whom Nietzsche never stops deriding, really wanted to fabricate and enforce a religion of the Logos, if they wanted to forestall dissidence among the people, why stick into their propaganda a statement that undermines the whole project? It is a very poor propagator who allows into the teaching the seed of its collapse.

There is another way of looking at it. We can turn the tables on ­Nietzsche and his modern epigones by accusing them of the very trait they abhor the most: naivete. When Nietzsche hails Pilate’s intervention, he thinks he’s identified an unfixable flaw in the Christian machinery, but in truth he merely falls into John’s trap. For when John inserts Pilate’s ironic skepticism at this supreme moment of humiliation and suffering and death, he presents yet one more temptation the world offers: the intellectual’s temptation.

Yes—how easy it is for intellec­tuals to recoil from the Passion, to withdraw from the demand of Jesus on the cross into a loose and lightsome sophistication imposing no excessive duties, no self-sacrifice, no labor of affirmation. Pilate’s cool jadedness provides relief from the contests of faith and the burdens of law. To the modern liberal, weary of culture wars, this dégagé tolerance is a principled stance. Why do these parties cling to allegiances that only cause friction? he asks. Why can’t Jews of the first century (and conservative Christians of the twenty-first century) lighten up and let people do what they want and be what they are? If they would only relax, if they weren’t so insistent on the details of their Scripture, if they didn’t have such a jealous god, we could be at peace.

The cultivated distaste for the absolute existed back then just as it does in our time. Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate’s question because the question has no answer, at least not a discursive one. Sophisticates such as Pilate can laugh or shrug away any reply. There is no end to their irony. It can be ­halted only by forces deeper than words: devotion, conviction, sacrifice. 

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

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